Monday, 14 March 2016
Once Upon A Time In New York City
I guess I’d been running ever since I’d left San Antonio; maybe it’s a universal truth that we’re all running from something, or maybe to something. Who knows? Who cares?
Back then, back in that hot summer of 1977, I’d been looking for work all the way from Savannah, Georgia down to Texas. I’d found some work but it usually dried up quickly and I’d be back on that Trailways bus before you could say ‘adios amigos’.
My daddy ran from something when I was about 4 years old -- us.
My mother told me, that my daddy felt that me and her had 'trapped him', and so he’d left one morning without saying goodbye. After that, my mother read the newspapers like her life depended on it. Scanning for words, like ‘Georgia man found dead’, ’Georgia man caught robbing bank’, she wasn’t real clear about what she was looking for, but she felt that my daddy was sure to have a bad finish to his living.
We never did hear from him again, but I guess he left me one thing – the ability to keep running.
Being a life-runner don’t make you a bad person, no sir-eee, but it don’t make you a good man either. I mean, folks are just getting to know you (and you, them) when you’re off like a flare from the sun, just ‘cause it’s all getting too close for comfort. There’s not enough space between you and the other soul breathing down your neck. It ain’t right, I’m telling you here and now, I know it ain’t right - but sometimes a man just can’t help himself.
That’s what had happened in San Antonio, I’d been working as a guide at the Alamo – telling them folks all about their heroes and trying to stop them looking towards the Woolworth store that stood across the street – seeing as it kind of killed the atmosphere for them tourists. Still, they all seemed to tip well and I was stashing away a good few greenbacks. I even bought myself one of those new-fangled portable tape players and one of the new music tapes – Fleetwood Macs’ Rumours.
Man, I never got tired of those songs – they were like gold, pure and simple.
But you see, I had met someone in San Antonio and they were talking about me and them settling down and moving into an apartment together. So me being me, I took that as a signal that it was my time to be shaking and moving down the highway and, just like my daddy, I left with the new dawn and without ever saying goodbye.
Okay, so I had issues. Tell me one soul on this planet who ain’t got any? Living is so weird and unnatural that not to have any issues would be a sign of something wrong in your heart and head.
I took the bus as far as Jacksonville, Florida and then I shot straight up past my own city of Savannah. Man that killed me, ‘cause it is such a beautiful place, but I just didn’t want to see any of my old life. I had the chance to look around as the bus drivers switched over but in the end I just grabbed a coffee and kept on heading north.
Do you ever sometimes feel that things happen to you just at the right time? Strange, ain’t it? But sometimes you can’t argue them facts into the dust. Some days are made for you and you can’t dismiss them.
That humid Wednesday in July was one of those days. I had changed buses at Myrtle Beach and then took the one that was heading for New York City. Man, that bus got real hot and sticky - a stinky humid hot. When all life is pushed together in those conditions, you’ve got to go some to love your fellow-man.
It was a truly beautiful evening as the bus rode up 8th avenue where the whole world and their brothers and sisters were out on the streets of Manhattan, playing music, laughing, smiling, taking time out of their troubled lives to party. It was good to be alive, and all I could think about was about getting me some of that Manhattan clam chowder.
The bus had only pulled into the Port Authority when it happened. The whole world went dark. Not just the bus, not just the bus terminal, but whole damned world as far as anyone could see (or not). Pitch black. No two other words could describe it. Pitch. Black.
Some guy up front of the bus lit one of those fuel driven cigarette lighters – man the smell of that thing, it ain’t good. A couple of minutes later and the bus driver had got the bus lights working and we could see again.
At least, we could see inside the bus, but outside man – it was like the end of everything.
The driver was saying things like ‘calm down folks, it ain’t the end of the world’, but as the old woman next to me said, ‘how did he know it wasn’t’. The driver took a step off of the bus and disappeared into the dark. The rest of us passengers were grumbling about how we were going to get our luggage out from the bus hold.
I heard a woman screaming somewhere out there that her dog had escaped from her. Some guy shouted that he’d been mugged. It might not be the end of the world but it sure felt like it.
I guess it was a different city back then, folks didn’t look you straight in the eye – it felt as if it was everyone was out for themselves. Of course, things have changed since that day in September (you know the one I mean), folks take time with others now, but in 1977 well it was dog-eat-dog world. Maybe I’m being unkind to the city - but as a guy from the south, it was the way it looked to me.
The man on the bus with the lighter had managed to open the door for the luggage and had started throwing everyone’s stuff on to the ground. In the dim light I saw my bag flying passed my shoulder, so I grabbed it and head off into what? I wasn’t too sure.
I heard a kid further up 8th Avenue say that the aliens had landed and he and his ma were going into hiding. Most folks were just shadows and silhouettes. Some had lit fires down alley ways. A young woman was screaming for someone to help her, ‘cause her elderly mother was stuck in an elevator and she needed to get her to hospital.
I decided to head up towards Central Park – it might be safer, it might not. I could hear the sirens of police cars, ambulances and fire-trucks from all over Manhattan.
Some woman ran passed me and shouted that a power-station had blown up somewhere and that the whole of the city was broken. I guess she might be right. Maybe the lights would come back on, maybe they wouldn’t. Up ahead of me I heard the noise of a window being smashed. Turned out it was a store that sold all those electrical things, TVs, radios and the rest. There were people pushing passed me with their arms full of robbed stuff.
As I passed the window of the store, I could see the lit ends of cigarettes moving around the place like fire-flies. Next thing I know, some big guy has grabbed me by the throat and has me shoved up against a wall.
That was all he said, then someone else called out that the cop cars were heading our way and he let me go, then the man disappeared into the night. Me, still keeping hold of my money.
I walked up towards Columbus Circle – folks had parked cars on the sidewalks with the headlights aimed straight into the stores. It was a chaos and people were just helping themselves.
As I crossed the Circle to the Park, I heard a gunshot come from over to my right - near some hotel or other. Somebody shouted ‘You ain’t coming in here’ and there was the sound of another gun shot. That night Manhattan had turned into crazy town.
Central Park was just Central Park. As I walked in the pitch black hoping not to hit or fall from anything, I could hear folks singing up ahead. Down below me I could hear a couple having sex. Not sure what kind of couple it was.
Over at the area they call the ‘Sheep Meadow’, I could see a few bonfires burning. I wasn’t sure if the noises were folks fighting or partying.
Then a thought went through my head – one about where all this running really gets you. It gets you very lost and in deep trouble. I was only thinking that way for a minute or two when a soft voice carried over from the darkness.
“Hi there,” she said.
And stepping out from the shadows, into the fire light, was a face that belonged to an angel.
“Wanna join us?”, asked the face and then she pointed to a group of about 10 people sitting around a fire.
I didn’t get a chance to reply as she’d already started to walk back towards the bonfire.
As I sat down I could hear a couple on the other side of the fire talking about all this being the end of the world.
“There’s gonna be blood sacrifice before this night is out,” said the man’s voice.
“I think we should pray,” said a younger girl’s voice.
“For what?” Shouted an old man.
“For forgiveness,” said the girl.
“Bull shit,” said the man, who was getting angrier. “Every time something bad happens to anyone, you lot blame the way we live”.
Then the angel face spoke up and asked me who I was and where I had been going before the darkness fell. So I told her - and them - my story, and in the dark and with all the words out there, my life sounded pretty pathetic.
Just then a gunshot sounded out somewhere across the park.
“It’s getting like the wild west round here,” said a kid.
Inside I had to agree and as the minutes ticked on, there was chaos growing everywhere.
The sirens grew louder, and the gunshots more frequent. A gang, who must have looted a store, ran past us, laughing, all with music systems under their arms. A few seconds later some cops almost ran through our fire while chasing them.
More and more bonfires grew up around the park as folks tried to find some safety in a place where night-time was normally the enemy.
Usually no one came here in the dark, unless they were looking for something that could only be done in the blackness. You hear what I’m saying. Tonight ‘though, it was the safest place (if anywhere was safe) in a city at war.
For a long time, our little gang, talked and talked, and in the talking we all realized that – yeah, we really were pretty much the same – same fears – same hopes – same dreams. These were folks who would have never mixed in the normal day-to-day, but tonight they found themselves clinging to a lifeboat in a park.
At some point I fell asleep, for the next thing I knew it was the sun rising and warming the end of my nose. We had made it through the night and next to the dying embers of our fire a young couple huddled together.
Most of the folks I had talked to had disappeared into the night. I had shared intimate thoughts with people whom I had never met before, whose faces I had never actually seen, and who I would never talk to again.
I walked over towards the East side and all I could see was the scars of the mayhem from the dark night. Somewhere out there, someone was brewing coffee and I was going to find them.
bobby stevenson 2016